Ulysses S. Grant in Command

JustineLaiWhile looking through some “sexually explicit” images related to the Civil War I came across this interesting collection by artist, Justine Lai.  The artist is based in San Francisco.  Lai has this to say about her first Online exhibit titled, “Join or Die”:

In Join Or Die, I paint myself having sex with the Presidents of the United States in chronological order. I am interested in humanizing and demythologizing the Presidents by addressing their public legacies and private lives. The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution; by inserting myself in its timeline, I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents. A power lies in rendering these patriarchal figures the possible object of shame, ridicule and desire, but it is a power that is constantly negotiated.

You can find the rest of the collection here.  Of course, if you are easily offended or of Puritan descent I would refrain from clicking through and move on.  Although I don’t find this to be that interesting, I am always struck by the ways we choose to remember our collective past.  I guess it gives new meaning to the widely held belief that the public is constantly getting screwed by the government.

32 thoughts on “Ulysses S. Grant in Command

  1. Lizzie

    Yikes. Talk about ruining ones lofty vision of our presidents. :'-(!

    Haha, but I do like your particular choice of words here : “I guess it gives new meaning to the widely held belief that the public is constantly getting screwed by the government.”

    Reply
  2. Matt McKeon

    Were these part of the 3500 images Lashster was viewing?

    I saw these on boingboing some time ago. Actually I don't see Grant as a spanker, seeing his desire not to humilate people one of his more attractive traits.

    Matt McKeon

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    1. Kevin Levin

      I hear you Brooks. Why can't the artist simply admit that she enjoys being spanked and has an oral fetish for Lincoln. It would make things much easier for all of us.

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      1. Brooks D. Simpson

        Well, let's put it this way … artists are inspired by many things. But, in truth, her explanation is nonsense to me. I'm sure I'll be told I just don't understand, but I don't get the message she's sending, and I'd love to interview her on why she chose to portray this president this way, another president the other way, and how it came to be that she could imagine being with, say, James Buchanan. :)

        I'm sure, for example, that Americans treat Franklin Pierce and John Tyler with such honor and respect that we'd never recognize their faults. More likely, Americans would not recognize either one of them, period. But to each her own, I say.

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        1. Kevin Levin

          I am pretty tolerant when it comes to art and the explanations that artists provide. I will consider pretty much anything. Still, I don't get the sense that there was much thought behind this particular exhibit. My first thought was, “oh another artist working to undermine and tendency to mythologize certain public figures. There is no reason to believe that this artist knows much of anything about some of the less popular presidents depicted here. It would be a mistake to reduce this down to a matter of shock value, but we shouldn't spend too much time dwelling on its meaning.

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  3. woodrowfan

    I'm just happy she seems to have left out Taft! Oye! Now if we can just get this artist and Mort Kunstler to combine their talents!

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  4. Name

    Is part of the discomfort seeing much older men naked? (Although Fillmore does seem cuddly). I don't think there's much evidence of any fetish on the artist's part, it's all pretty conventional.

    It's odd about sex and violence. Any teacher could use a film showing a man's head being blown off, but sexual content is verboten. The pornography of violence is OK, pornography not so much.

    Matt

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    1. Brooks D. Simpson

      The images don't make me feel uncomfortable. I just don't think it's very effective. Now, if spanking's “conventional”, then I'm out of step, and prefer to remain so. :)

      Reply
  5. Sherree

    Kevin,

    Lai’s Join or Die exhibit troubles me for the following reason: a talented young artist chose, as a self portrait, to portray herself engaged in sexual activity–all in the name of advancing feminism–thus, effectively objectifying women–and herself–and simultaneously preemptively silencing the most astute potential critics of that objectification, negating , mocking, and nullifying the very core principles that once underlay the feminist movement. (If this had been Lai’s point, I could, perhaps understand her work. Again, perhaps understand it. I think that there are better ways to make that point.) The fact that the male subjects of the paintings are US Presidents is almost irrelevant. The paintings are about Lai

    What is equally troubling is that the post on Lai followed a post in which a defense was made, by some, of viewing pornography. A credible defense of Latschar could have been made without defending pornography. Latschar’s confidentiality was breached, as one of your readers pointed out. That is a serious problem in the work place. Also, Latschar did achieve quite a bit at Gettysburg, and he should be applauded for his work, not defended because viewing pornography is an enlightened activity. That is an old argument, as old as the women’s movement itself.

    For a different opinion concerning what the viewing of pornography entails, I am including a link to an article by Damian Byers entitled “Feminism and Women‘s Studies: Pornography and the Damage Done“. In this article, the writer, who is a man, examines the psychological dynamic at work between the viewer of pornographic images, and the object viewed–ie, in this case, a woman’s body. Then the writer assesses the damage done to the “consumer” of pornography, as he phrases it. Perhaps the article will be of interest to some of your readers.

    Here is the link:

    feminism.eserver.org/gender/sex-work/…/document_view -

    Reply
  6. Shane Christen

    Sherree Tannen; thank you for a superb response put in far kinder vhein than I might. It's porn disguised as bad art. It has no educational value. I'm not easily offended or of puritan descent but I do have to wonder why it's here if not to shock people and get a response. Porn of any kind has no place on an educators computer.

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    1. Kevin Levin

      Whether it is bad art is up to the viewer, but in calling this pornography it seems to me we run the risk of collapsing some important distinctions when it comes to our understanding of sexuality.

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      1. Sherree

        Kevin,

        I don't see the exhibit as either art or pornography, just a waste of talent. Your description “sexually explicit” is accurate. My main objection is that the artist framed the exhibit as one that examines a feminist theme. I consider this a pseudo feminist position. I consider myself a feminist and do not agree with Lai that the exhibit advances a critique of patriarchal power. On the contrary, I think the exhibit does just the opposite. There are many feminists–both male and female–who do not agree with my position. I respect that. This is simply the way I see the exhibit.

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  7. Shane Christen

    It is not a history teachers job to teach sexuality. Calling porn an art disguises nothing, it is still porn.

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    1. Kevin Levin

      First, I wasn't commenting on the exhibit as a history teacher per se. With all due respect, this comment is absurd. I teach an entire course on the history of gender and a great deal of the course revolves around evolving assumptions about sexuality. How else am I supposed to introduce activists such as Margaret Sanger or discuss the history surrounding the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade? Perhaps you should explain what you mean here.

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      1. Shane Christen

        Kevin, I was unaware that you also teach a course on the history of gender. With that simple bit of information the entire purpose of the original thread makes sense to me. Without that to add to the context all I could see was a history teacher commenting on porn thinly disgused as art. This is not the “Rise of Venus” or classical art but far less artistic… stuff. With the context of a history of gender or such course it makes sense to me. In that context I'm not looking at a history teacher and wondering why he's bringing porn into the classroom anymore.

        Frankly, if my child brought home information from her HS history teacher involving any of these images or any that remotely resembled them I would be at that teacher, principle or superintendents office within the hour demanding an explanation. I rather expect that most places in the US such material in a non university classroom would get the teacher in some hot water. Handing it to teenaged HS students would land many a teacher in serious trouble if not outright cost them their job.

        That's just my two cents.

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        1. Kevin Levin

          Thanks for the follow-up. I agree 100% that this is not good art, but at the same time I don't consider it to be pornography either. Please keep in mind that I am not showing these images in my classroom. My blog is a place for me to talk about my interest in the Civil War as well as my teaching, but the two rarely get mixed. That said, some of my students do read my blog and I am more than happy to have a serious discussion with them about the content. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

          Reply
  8. Sherree

    Kevin,

    I don't see the exhibit as either art or pornography, just a waste of talent. Your description “sexually explicit” is accurate. My main objection is that the artist framed the exhibit as one that examines a feminist theme. I consider this a pseudo feminist position. I consider myself a feminist and do not agree with Lai that the exhibit advances a critique of patriarchal power. On the contrary, I think the exhibit does just the opposite. There are many feminists–both male and female–who do not agree with my position. I respect that. This is simply the way I see the exhibit

    Reply
  9. Sherree

    Kevin,

    You have said that you do not show Lai's exhibit in your classroom, and that is quite understandable. I cannot imagine a teacher asking young female students to negotiate Lai's work in a classroom setting.

    President Obama said that, in our nation, we need to have a conversation about race. We certainly do. I think we need to have a conversation about gender, too.

    I have a question. Lai's work aside: how is the viewing of pornography, the industry that promotes pornographic literature, and the history of pornography taught in a course on gender? Hopefully, Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner are not presented as feminist icons. If so, then feminists like Gloria Steinem lost a big part of the battle for women's rights.

    Add my voice to your history lesson, Kevin. Right as the Roe v Wade decision was made, so was the movie starring Linda Boreman–a movie that dominated conversations among both the supposedly enlightened and the supposedly unenlightened as well, as we, young female students, nervously laughed and tried to navigate those shoals.

    Sorry, Kevin. This one hit a nerve, as in eh tu, Brute? to those men (and women) who consider themselves feminists, yet do not acknowledge the brutalizing impact of pornography.

    There is a common ground somewhere and we all need to find it. There are choices outside of returning to the world that Margaret Sanger worked so courageously to overcome, and the one in which a young female artist thinks she is promoting feminist ideals by painting herself having sex with US Presidents.

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    1. Kevin Levin

      Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure that I ever said that I teach the history of pornography in my classes. What I did say is that various aspects of gender/sexuality are discussed. In my women's history course we read Gloria Steinem's “When I Was a Playboy Bunny”, which is based on her experience at the Heffner home.

      Of course, I understand that these are sensitive issues. However, there is room for debate, including Lai's belief that what she is doing is in fact art and not pornography. Like I said, I don't believe that Lai's work is best understood as pornography.

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      1. Sherree

        Kevin,

        Thanks for your reply.

        I did not say that Lai's work is pornography either. I am not sure what it is. It is simply not helpful, in my opinion, so we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Best, Sherree.

        Reply
  10. Kevin Levin

    Thanks for the comment. I'm not sure that I ever said that I teach the history of pornography in my classes. What I did say is that various aspects of gender/sexuality are discussed. In my women's history course we read Gloria Steinem's “When I Was a Playboy Bunny”, which is based on her experience at the Heffner home.

    Of course, I understand that these are sensitive issues. However, there is room for debate, including Lai's belief that what she is doing is in fact art and not pornography. Like I said, I don't believe that Lai's work is best understood as pornography.

    Reply
  11. Sherree

    Kevin,

    You have said that you do not show Lai's exhibit in your classroom, and that is quite understandable. I cannot imagine a teacher asking young female students to negotiate Lai's work in a classroom setting.

    President Obama said that, in our nation, we need to have a conversation about race. We certainly do. I think we need to have a conversation about gender, too.

    I have a question. Lai's work aside: how are the viewing of pornography; the industry that promotes pornographic literature; and the history of pornography taught in a course on gender? Hopefully, Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner are not presented as feminist icons. If so, then feminists like Gloria Steinem lost a big part of the battle for women's rights.

    There is a middle ground somewhere, and perhaps we will find it some day. There are also choices outside of returning to the world that Margaret Sanger worked so courageously to overcome, and the one in which a young female artist says she is promoting feminist ideas by painting herself having sex with US Presidents.

    Reply
  12. Sherree

    Kevin,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I did not say that Lai's work is pornography either. I am not sure what it is. It is simply not helpful, in my opinion, so we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Best, Sherree.

    Reply

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